John T. Platts and his Monumental Urdu-English Dictionary

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Rauf Parekh

It is generally believed that orientalists—especially the Europeans who worked on Urdu language, grammar and dictionaries—had an ulterior motive and they had worked to help succeed colonial designs. But some scholars, such as Shanul Haq Haqqee, have a different view.

Haqqee sahib once wrote that “the impression that the interest the British lexicographers had in the Urdu language and in compiling Urdu dictionaries was just because of the administrative and political expedience is not correct. We must acknowledge their scholarly and academic interest and true love of the language”.

One feels that some western scholars might have had political or religious considerations, such as preaching Christian beliefs or helping the British to rule the subcontinent effectively, but we have to admit that European scholars were the ones who wrote some earliest books on Urdu grammar as well as some earliest Urdu dictionaries.

While we cannot totally rule out the ‘other’ motives, it is a fact that these foreigners paved the way for the works on the Urdu language that followed. It was their contribution which not only showed the local scholars the way, but also ensured that some of the earlier vocabulary and old patterns of the language were preserved. Among these scholars who played a very important role in strengthening the tradition of dictionary-writing in Urdu was John T. Platts. The hard work and research that have gone into Platts’ dictionary prove that his motive was purely academic and linguistic. His A dictionary of Urdu, classical Hindi and English, first published in 1884, is a landmark in the history of Urdu lexicography and it surpasses the works of all his predecessors as it is based on research and back-breaking hard work.

Although Platts has benefited from his predecessors, especially John Shakespear’s work A dictionary: Hindustani and English, first published in 1817, he has not followed the earlier lexicographers blindly and has improved upon their works. He knew Sanskrit, Urdu and Hindi quite well, as is evident from his book A Grammar of Hindustani or Urdu Language, and has taken full advantage of his study. But Platts’ own research indeed enriched the dictionary, as he says in his preface to the dictionary: “I have for many years been engaged in the study of Urdu and Hindi books (in prose and verse) and newspapers with the view of collecting words and phrases for the work. I have thus been enabled, not only to verify most of the words given in the dictionaries of [John] Shakespear and others, but to supplement them with thousands of new words and phrases and additional meanings of the words. Moreover, a long residence in India made me acquainted with much of the living colloquial language not found in dictionaries, which I was careful to note”.

But it is quite strange that little was known about this great lexicographer and whatever information we had was derived from C. E. Buckland’s Dictionary of Indian Biography. Luckily, in 1912, supplement of the famous Dictionary of National Biography, an article by George Speirs Alexander Ranking gave some important information about this great lexicographer of Urdu. Since there is little information available about John T. Platts, a brief life-sketch and some bibliographical information based on Ranking’s article must be reproduced here.

John Thompson Platts was born on August 1, 1830, in Calcutta (now Kolkata). When his father Robert Platts died, young Platts had to go back to England. He was educated in Bedford and came back to India. According to Buckland, during the 1857 war of independence, Platts was Inspector of Schools in the Central Province and had also served as Principal of Banaras College. But according to Ranking, during 1858-59 Platts taught mathematics at Banaras College and in 1859 he was made in-charge of the Saugor School (at that time Saugor, now Sagar, was a district in Jabalpur and it has now been made a district of Madhya Pradesh). In 1861, Platts was made a professor of mathematics and the head master. In 1864, Platts was transferred as assistant inspector of schools, North West Provinces. On March17, 1872, Platts opted for retirement on health grounds and went to England, where he settled in Ealing Borough and began teaching Persian and Urdu. Platts married twice. His first marriage took place in Lahore in 1856. His first wife, Alice Jane Kenyon, died in 1874. He was married to Mary Elizabeth, an Australian widow, in 1876. On June 2, 1880, Platts was appointed at Oxford University as professor of Persian. John T. Platts died all of a sudden on September 21, 1904, and was buried on September 26, in Wolvercote cemetery near Oxford.

Now a few words about the dictionary that has made Platts a legendary figure in the history of Urdu lexicography: spread over 1,259 pages, the dictionary offers definitions and meanings of about 100,000 words, phrases, idioms, terms and proverbs. Many of these are not to be found in any dictionary. Moulvi Abdul Haq, while reviewing Urdu dictionaries, wrote that Platts’ dictionary “includes a large number of words that have never been used in Urdu and will never be”. He is right, but this dictionary, as the title suggests, is not only dictionary of Urdu but also dictionary of Hindi and Sanskrit. Platts has included those words on that count. But one has to admit that basically this is a dictionary of Urdu, since the alphabetical order of the entries is based on Urdu alphabet (Hindi has a quite different sequence).

Platts has painstakingly mentioned the pronunciation of each and every word. The pronunciation of Urdu, Persian and Arabic words is given both in Urdu script and Roman letters. Hindi and Sanskrit words are written in Urdu letters, then in Devanagri script and their pronunciation is mentioned in Roman script, too. This has made the work equally useful for people knowing just one script. The explanations are, of course, in English.

While giving different shades of meanings, Platts also mentions with each entry its grammatical status, using abbreviations for different parts of speech. No key to these abbreviations has been given but they are explained in the preface. A remarkable aspect, missing in most of the Urdu-Urdu dictionaries, is Platts’ ability to give the precise botanical or zoological names, species and genus of animals, birds, worms, bugs, fruits, shrubs, roots, sprigs, drugs, trees and plants. Contrary to the lexicographers of Urdu, Platts carefully explains the colour, shape and properties of roots, flowers or plants. In Urdu dictionaries, one usually finds phrases like “a kind of bird” or “a kind of flower” and the compilers of Urdu dictionaries rarely, if ever, bother to explain the colour or species of any bird or flower. It was, largely, left to orientalists to discover and record our flora and fauna. Even today, most of us cannot name the tree that has been standing outside our home for ages. The reason is, perhaps, in Urdu dictionaries, one can find all kinds of out-dated, old-fashioned, old-wives’ tales when it comes to explaining an obscure object, bird or flower, but no precise names.

Although Platts’ dictionary is not without its shortcomings and inaccuracies, they are minimal, considering the scope and length of the work. A very strong point of Platts’ is his ability to trace and precisely explain the roots and etymology of words. But this has become his weakness, too, at times, especially when he tries to trace an Arabic or Persian word in Sanskrit roots.

Aside from minor flaws, Platts’ dictionary is a monumental work that has retained its authoritative status even 128 years after its publication. Luckily, many publishers from Pakistan and India have been coming up with reprints and the work is still available.

Rauf Parekh, “Literary Notes: John T. Platts and his monumental Urdu-English dictionary,” in Dawn, September 22, 2014. Accessed on March 1, 2015, at:

The item above written by Rauf Parekh and published in Dawn on September 22, 2014, is catalogued here in full by Faiz-e-Zabaan for non-profit educational purpose only. Faiz-e-Zabaan neither claims the ownership nor the authorship of this item. The link to the original source accessed on March 1, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

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